Tar Heels look to bounce back, Wolfpack eye upset

UNC and NC State meet on Friday in Chapel Hill both hoping to end the regular season on a high note

NC State and UNC will renew their rivalry on Friday when the teams meet in Chapel Hill for their regular season-ending clash. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

When UNC and NC State meet on Black Friday in Chapel Hill for their annual rivalry game, it will be the 69th straight year the teams have faced off and the 112th meeting overall.

The Tar Heels hold a 67-37-6 edge in the all-time series, but the Wolfpack enter the game holding bragging rights after beating UNC last season, erasing a nine-point deficit in the final minutes with two touchdowns in 26 seconds for a 34-30 win in Raleigh.

Both teams enter Friday’s game with a bitter taste in their mouths.

The Tar Heels had emerged as dark-horse candidates for the College Football Playoff. Led by freshman quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Drake Maye, UNC needed to win their final two regular season games and beat Clemson in the ACC Championship Game to pressure the committee’s hand.

But their aspirations of a CFP berth and a Heisman for Maye crumbled last week when the Tar Heels squandered a 17-0 halftime lead and lost to Georgia Tech.

“I didn’t do a good job of having them prepared,” said UNC coach Mack Brown after the loss. “I thought we were mature enough to play in what would be called a ‘trap game.’ I thought we were beyond that after Virginia, but we obviously weren’t.”

UNC still has a lot to play for. Carolina is one win away from a 10-win season, which would be its first since 2015, and it still has a date in Charlotte with the Tigers for the conference title.

The Tar Heels can salvage their season with an ACC championship, but as Brown said, the team can’t catch itself looking too far ahead and ignoring a still dangerous NC State squad.

The Wolfpack don’t have too much to look forward to after last week’s 25-10 loss to Louisville robbed them of a chance at their own 10-win season. But if there’s one thing they can rally behind, it’s playing spoiler to UNC.

The biggest question for NC State? Do have enough key players healthy to give the Tar Heels a challenge.

Against the Cardinals, the Wolfpack were without starting linebacker Payton Wilson and nickel Tyler Baker-Williams on defense and several players on offense, including MJ Morris — their own freshman quarterback — and center Grant Gibson.

“We’re down some pretty key parts right now as a team with the injuries, and the margin for error is pretty small,” said NC State coach Dave Doeren. “But I’m not ruling anybody out. The kids that are hurt are going to fight to try and get back. If they’re healthy enough, they’ll play. If not, we’ll roll with who we have.”

It’s been a bumpy ride for the Wolfpack, who lost starting quarterback Devin Leary in the sixth game of the season, but a veteran and experienced defense has managed to keep them in games all year and will need to do the same on Friday.

A key to watch for will be how Maye responds after a loss and having to face an NC State defense that leads the ACC in defensive efficiency. He went without a touchdown pass for the first time all season in the loss to the Yellow Jackets, and his 202 passing yards, 53% completion percentage and 103.2 passer rating were his lowest of the season.

Maye has 3,614 passing yards on the season, and his 34 touchdowns are the third most in the NCAA. He’ll be looking to show the Georgia Tech game was just a blip and not the start of a downward trend — both for him and the Tar Heels.